August 9, 2013

The District got some very good news late last month, when the leaders of our public-education system joined me in announcing the results of this past year’s D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System (DC-CAS) tests. These exams are given to students in grades three through eight and in grade 10 every year, and they test a number of subject areas.

The results were impressive, representing the biggest gains on these standardized tests in the past six years. Citywide, math scores went up by 3.9 percentage points. In reading, they went up 4.1 percentage points.

Moreover, these gains were seen across every category. Scores in D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) as well as the District’s public charter schools improved; all ethnic groups saw improvement; and scores went up across sub-groups (such as students who are economically disadvantaged and English-language learners).

For example, students for whom English is not their first language showed an improvement in math of 4.2 percentage points. DCPS students showed gains in math (up 3.6 percentage points from 2012), reading (4 percentage points), science (1.8 percentage points) and composition (4.4 percentage points). By any measure, that’s impressive.

These results show that all students are benefiting from the hard work that parents, teachers and school leaders are doing to improve student outcomes. And they show that we are also beginning to close the achievement gap that has divided some of our students with the most significant needs from other students.

These results come at a crucial point in the District’s efforts at education reform. We have had mayoral control over our traditional public schools since 2007. In the last few years, we have moved closer to a balance between the number of students in the D.C. Public Schools and our public charter school system, even as both are growing in enrollment.

While the road has been far from smooth, what these latest statistics tell us is that we are on the right path. And that means it is time to find ways to accelerate our progress rather than make a sudden turn.

In the past six years, we’ve transformed our curriculum, significantly beefing it up. We’ve established high standards for teaching and learning, and we’ve crafted instruments for holding teachers, schools and students accountable to those standards. We’ve had tremendous success at attracting, incentivizing and retaining the best and the brightest teachers, principals and other educators to work in our schools. And — from beautiful, contemporary new school facilities to universal pre-K to teacher training to wraparound services for students — our system is much better at providing resources to help set the stage for students’ success.

Nonetheless, I am well aware that we still have a long way to go. Although these most recent gains are significant and exciting, overall scores are still far too low. And they are not improving quickly enough.

Make no mistake: I am as impatient as anyone when it comes to the pace of reform. But I also know there is no simple way or quick fix.

This is why we must stay the course on education reform while doubling down on the methods we know are working. We need to increase the number of schools with longer instructional days and shorten the summer recess, when students suffer academic losses. Moreover, we need to ensure all 3- and 4-year-olds have the chance to attend school so they get the start that will prevent them from being behind right from the beginning. We need to scale up the examples of excellence that we have by replicating these conditions for more students and more schools. And we also need to strengthen other existing schools and programs so they can achieve the kinds of results already expected in our best schools. We already are working hard at implementing plans to do exactly those things.

We cannot turn back, turn around or veer off the road. We need to double down on our hard-gained reforms and speed up the pace. These impressive test results prove we are on the right path — and we can’t afford to get distracted.

The writer is mayor of the District.